5090 words, short story
All Electric Ghosts
The club called Fleur House is a shabby red brick front slouched between a barbershop and a dépanneur, no holo signage or even neon to lead people in. I wouldn’t have found it on my own. But that’s why I found Dion.
“Bin, here we are,” my new friend says, his wide grin winching even wider. “My cousin keeps it in the back.”
“Okay,” I say, pulling my hood tighter to my scalp and feeling one last time for the equipment in my jacket pocket. “Après toi.”
Two men are rolling joints at a wobbling metal table just outside the door, talking in slurred French. One looks Senegalese, skin so dark the shadows underneath are bruise-purple. The other one is a Moroccan with carefully-razored black hair and deep circles under his eyes.
Both look up at us as we get closer. The Moroccan has a flicker knife on the table in front of him, sharp black carbon. My overfull bladder squirms.
Dion pulls each of the men into a quick embrace, beaming, introducing me as le biologiste. The Moroccan winks at me, but doesn’t smile.
“Salut,” I say. “Nice night.”
Then Dion leads the way into the club. It’s dark, nearly pitch black, and silent. All the tables are retracted into the walls to clear the floor. Seven or eight couples are dancing, elbow-tight but sliding around each other like oil and water. It’s eerie until my earbud’s Bluetooth kicks in and gets the local kizomba music, slow and sexy and sutured with a harsh electric drum.
Dion wriggles through the crowd like an eel, his feet shuffling to the beat on automatic. Half the dancers have their eyes shut, hypnotized by the pulse of the music, by the dopamine of body-to-body. They look high. For a second I want to just stay out here and dance. Forget the thing in the back. I used to like dancing, at least on molly.
Then I get the flash. A pictogram in my mind’s eye shows a perfect gray triangle with a slash of dark red licking up one side of it like a tongue. It’s accompanied by a cascade of letters as my brain tries and fails to turn it into English, then French. But I know this one: it refers to a specific writhing shrug my shoulders would never be able to make, and to a biomechanical sort of locking system, and most of all to pain.
This is the place. I blink my eyes clear. In the back corner near the bar, a fat man is dancing with a slender pen-stroke of a woman. He moves with perfect balance, turning his partner inside, outside; he levers her foot gently off the floor with his own and they sink together into the song’s final ebb.
“Cousine, here he is, the biologiste,” Dion says. “He’s come to see it. I messaged you.”
The woman unwraps herself from her partner, who shuffles away. She reties her dreadlocked hair and gives Dion a long look, observing his shiver and sniff. “T’es fucké, Dion,” she says. “How much did you tell him?”
She turns her eyes on me, and they are not dissimilar to the flicker knife outside. The next song builds but I tap my earbud to cut the volume.
“Only that you found something strange,” I say. “In the water. Some strange fish.”
“He says it might be worth mad cash, Ty,” Dion says. “As a, you know, as a spécimen. And they would name it after us, he says, since we found it.”
Her brow lifts a micrometer, whether for the cash or the naming rights I’m not sure.
“If it really is a new species,” I say. “I have doubts.”
Ty gives a half-laugh in her throat. “Mon mec, you’ve never seen this kind of fish before. I guarantee it.”
I stuff my hands in my pockets and give her a skeptical smile even as I get the flash again: more urgent this time, the gray triangle stamped hard on my retinas, the red slash arcing off it like a flare. Pain. My heart beats double time. I try not to shift foot to foot.
“Your eyes wired?” she asks.
I oblige, peeling my eyelids back while she leans in close and checks for the telltale glint of contact circuitry. From up close the smell of shea butter wafts off her.
I shove the basic black slab into her hand; it’s practically still warm from the printer. She pockets it. The pictogram is throbbing inside my skull. I wish I could tell it to shut up, tell it I need to concentrate.
“It’s hard enough to keep this clown from taking selfies with the thing,” Ty says, pointing at Dion, who gives a shrug, palms up, lips pursed. “I don’t want any photos. Not until I know what it is.”
“Sure,” I say. “No photos.”
She leads me past the bar and down a short hallway and Dion dances along behind us, crisscrossing his steps. My hands are getting sweaty in my pockets. At a water-warped door, Ty unloops a key from around her wrist and wrestles it into the lock. She gives the door some shoulder and it opens, scraping along lino tiles.
The flash again, so strong I have to clench my teeth together. Dion makes sure the door is firmly shut behind us before his cousin hits the light switches. Fluorescent tubes sputter on in the ceiling, showing a cracked mirror and soap-scummed sink, a toilet with a splintery wooden seat, and, taking up the back half of the room, a bathtub. A few moths whirl past my head, drawn towards the light.
“It’s in the tub,” Dion says.
Of course. Of course it’s in the tub. I force myself over to it, knees keeling, remembering another tub, another body. I grip the rust-spotted lip and lean over. It’s not Emilie. It’s a mass of overlapping and interlocking bits of fluted gray flesh, slick and shiny. Scalloped flippers and wicked black barbs, tendrils writhing from a bony T-bar head poking up out of the water.
An actual biologist would probably be shitting themselves with excitement. I reach into my pocket.
“You know, we found it just after the meteor shower,” Dion says, tearing a strip of cardboard off his cigarette pack, folding it with practiced fingers. “Une semaine, quoi. She says I’m stupid, but I say it’s an—”
I hit him with the stunner; he spasms and gives me a disappointed look before he drops hard to the lino. His cousin is quicker on her feet and she smashes into my arm, trying to knock the stunner away. The gecko grip does its thing and she only ends up skewing my aim so I hit her neck instead of her chest. She goes down twitching.
“Désolé,” I say, pocketing the stunner. “C’est ma job.”
Of course, job implies I get a salary.
The thing in the bathtub squeaks and chitters, tendrils poking up over the ceramic’s edge. It can wait a little longer. I hurry to the toilet instead, where I finally take the piss I’ve been holding since I started buying beers for me and Dion three bars back. It feels so good I put my hand up on the wall how old men always do at urinals.
I flick, tuck, zip up. Dion groans from the floor as I wash my hands, which are shaking a bit from the adrenaline and from what comes next. Ty is trying to give me a withering look even with her cheek squashed to the tiles.
The thing in the tub screeches and mewls, reaching its tendrils toward me.
I go to the side of the tub and get down on my knees; my bad one clicks. The flash comes again, but softer, accompanied this time by a tingling at the crest of my skull. I tug my hood back off my shaved head and hear a muffled noise of surprise behind me. The trepanation didn’t heal real well. I had to do it myself, with an electric drill and veterinarian’s anesthetic.
“Let’s make this quick,” I tell the thing in the tub, even though I know it can’t hear me. Not yet. Then I shut my eyes and plunge my head into the cold oily water. Tendrils trace my scalp, grope for the plastic cap in my skull. I feel them slither inside and—
“There’s something in the water. Look.”
We’re at the Old Port, across the water from the Grande Roue. I’m using the railing to hold myself up. There’s a spiderweb stretched across one of the harbor light boxes, billowing in the night wind, and I can see the furry white spider crawling carefully across it.
“Just give me my shit,” I say.
“I’m serious,” Emilie’s dealer says. “Look. Something glowing.”
I look. The black water is rippled from the wind, but there’s something moving under the surface, too, a soft orange blob drifting towards the dock.
Emilie’s dealer tucks her vape away and belches smoke. The orange glow has her full attention. “It’s pretty. What do you think it is?”
I don’t care. I’m getting sick, getting shaky, smelling my own sweat. Trying to kick this week was a mistake. “Give me my shit,” I say again. We already tapped phones. She has my money. She has my morphine in her little pink backpack.
“Yeah, yeah, right.” She unzips it, reaching inside and coming out with a little baggie of hospital-green pills. Then she pauses. “Hey, you swim, right? That’s how you knew Em. You used to swim together at the Parc.”
I don’t want to talk about Emilie. “Yeah. Yes.”
She gives me a bleary smile and pulls out a second baggie. “I’ll double you up if you go grab that thing.”
I look at the second baggie. I look down at the orange light bobbing almost right underneath us. “It’s trash,” I say. “It’s someone’s Halloween decoration.”
“I want it,” she says, narrowing her eyes.
“You’re a fucking sadist,” I say, but I strip off my coat.
The water is icy and the thing is slippery and when I finally claw my way back up to the docks my heart is pounding through my ribs. For a while I sit on the splintery wood and curse, another junkie spewing words at thin air, then I get up and make my sopping way back to where I jumped in.
People part around me. They can see my soaked clothes and my overgrown beard; I’m not sure if they can see my twitching eye. It’s going like crazy right now. It feels like someone has their finger inside my eyelid and is wriggling it, wriggling it. I stalk through tourist’s photos of the blue-and-purple big wheel until I get back to my coat.
My coat is there, and so is the spider on its rippling web, but Emilie’s dealer is gone. I stare all around, raking the crowd for a little pink backpack. I pick up my coat and check all the pockets, but if she was stupid enough to put the morphine in there someone else already cleaned them out. My phone is gone. My morphine is gone. I’m fucked.
I look down at the slippery thing, the reason I’m fucked. It’s not glowing anymore—that stopped as soon as I got a grip on it. Now it’s just a slimy colorless sack, like a half-deflated balloon coated in mucus. I squeeze it and feel something hard and noded in the very middle. Maybe it’s some kind of kelp. I remember hauling slimy things out of the water at the beach when I was little.
I’m about to rip it apart, rip it to shreds and hurl the shreds back over the railing, when I feel it start to pulse.
When I get back to the apartment there’s a message from an unknown number on the cracked screen of my charging tablet: saw undercovers had to dip. got your phone and salt at mine but has to be tomorrow.
I dump the thing in the sink and start tapping out a reply, telling her that’s bullshit, telling her I need it tonight. My fingers keep missing the letters. If I can’t get it from her tonight I’m going to end up buying fucking fentanyl out of some alley in Hochelaga. My joints are already aching and my stomach is empty but trying to heave up anyways.
Trying to kick this week was a mistake. I stagger over to my kitchen cupboard and grab a Ziploc of old weed. It won’t do much, but it’ll cut the nausea a bit. I find my chipped bong in a drawer with the ladles and spoons and pull it out to start packing a bowl. Bullshit she saw feds. She was high and paranoid and now I’m suffering for it.
The first pull charbroils my throat, but then I get a good lungful and feel it hit. It’s not enough, not nearly enough, but I can think a little better. I can remember there’s a thing in the sink.
“Okay,” I say. “Okay, okay, okay. What the fuck are you, mon gars?”
It’s obvious, when I think about it. I didn’t see the meteor shower—I was in paradise, boneless on the couch, halfway watching cartoons on my tablet—but I heard about it. The thing in the sink must be an alien.
I go and inspect it; my stomach stabs at me when I lean over. My hands on either side of the basin are bone-white and slippery. The thing is still pulsing, a slow undulation. Definitely alive. Possibly growing—it looks bigger than it did when I went fishing. But maybe I’m seeing shit. That’s another possibility. Maybe this alien is actually trash that I hauled home from the Old Port like a lunatic.
Then the shakes really start, and I can’t stay upright.
I crawl over to my bed and pull the blanket down to me, wrap it around myself. That’s good until the wool turns into fire ants. Then I have to peel it off my skin while I scream into the floor, and then the fire ants are under my skin and I have to dig them out.
In the back of my brain I know it’s day three, and right now I can barely crawl, so unless I can get to my tablet and call someone to bring me a hit, this is going to happen whether I like it or not. They say it can’t kill you, they say the relapse kills you, but they lied lied lied lied lied—
I scrabble the gloves and duct tape from under the bed, before I reopen all my scars. Some of the scratches are already bleeding. I stuff my left hand into the padded winter glove and wind the duct tape around my wrist, try to do the same on the other side but can’t get the tape off the roll. My stomach heaves; I vomit up watery yellow bile all over my forearms.
Through the pounding in my head I think I can hear the thing in the sink moving, growing limbs and scraping them against the stainless steel. Or maybe I’m hearing Emilie, shifting in the bathtub. I know I need to get up, but just like then, I can’t. Then, because I knew everything would be fine, everything would be perfect no matter what I decided. Now, because my muscles have been fed through a meat grinder, come out limp pink ropes.
I start sobbing again, the way only Emilie makes me sob. She’s nothing but electricity now. I think about that sometimes. I don’t just mean her information online, her social media feed that’s become a mausoleum. I mean memories.
My skin is on fire and Emilie is an electric ghost moving around my gray matter, and the gray matter of all the people who ever knew her. I wish I could find them, all the people who ever spoke to her, who saw her for even a second at a bus stop, and pull the little fragments of her out of their brains. They don’t even know what they’re missing.
My gut is full of broken glass and I should stop thinking about her. Every time she makes a loop through my head she gets a little more distorted. I’m delirious. I’m fucking delirious and I can feel someone touching my leg. My leg, my hip, my stomach.
It’s the thing from the sink. It’s not a mucus ball anymore. It has a shape, a bony frame, and thin whiplike tendrils creeping over my skin. They find my mouth. My nose. I realize it’s going to kill me, and I’m grateful. I’m so grateful. So I lie there and stare at the blurry ceiling and wait while the tendril slithers up my nostril.
And suddenly I feel nothing.
My body is still clammy and trembling, but I’m a million miles away. This isn’t a hallucination the way I know them. I’m not paralyzed with terror, or limp with bliss. I feel like I barely exist. I’m floating in the dark, and the thing from the sink is there with me, like someone hovering over my shoulder, just out of my sight line.
Usually I hate it when people do that, but this is different. I can feel it like a soft hand roaming all over my brain, little bioelectric bursts mimicking my neurons, firing connections, testing, probing. I see colors. Shapes. Hazy scenes pulled out of my memory. But no feelings. I’m not angry. I’m not sad. I’m not fiending. I’m nothing, and I wish it could last forever.
“Benny? T’es correct?”
It’s Emilie. The old Emilie, suntanned with wiry swimmer’s shoulders, lanky arms, dirty blonde hair tied up away from her big forehead and mottled green eyes. Barefoot, wearing cutoffs and an old T-shirt. Her wide mouth has that familiar little twist of concern, how it’s done ever since we were kids.
I’ve dreamed about her plenty, but in the dreams she never speaks to me. She sits down beside me now, cross-legged.
“Hey, Em,” I say. “Yeah. I’m good. You?”
“You don’t look good,” she says. “You look like a larva or something. How long have you been sick? Putain, you should have told me you were sick. I’d bring soup or something.”
“I’m hallucinating you,” I say. “There’s an alien sticking its fingers up my nose and tickling my brain. Also I’m in withdrawal.”
“Shitty kind of day,” Emilie says, and she lies down on the floor beside me.
I feel her breath on my cheek, her body heat next to mine. I can smell her spearmint gum and her argan oil shampoo. Her hand brushes mine, skin on skin, and suddenly I can feel everything. The sob wrenches its way up my whole body and comes out as a gasp. Tears start welling up in my eyes, blurring out her face.
“Hey,” she says, propping up on her elbow. “Chill. It’s okay. I’m here. C’est correct.” She grabs my hand, and it reminds me of this road trip we took to Quebec City, how she would grip my hand whenever we went under an overpass, whenever we went through a tunnel.
I can’t stop crying. And I think, if it feels real, who’s to say it’s not? I think, aren’t we all just electric ghosts moving through someone else’s brain? And from far away, I feel the thing from the sink stirring on my chest. A sort of pictogram appears in my mind’s eye: a soft green rhombus, the color of Emilie’s eyes, moving into a golden-brown slope like a ship into port.
On the other side of the slope, a jagged shape I know is me moves out into a black void scattered with glowing orange circles. Somehow, even as my brain tries and fails to turn it into words—homecoming, se réunir, partnership—I understand the meaning.
If I do this for you, you do this for me.
Back in the bathroom of Fleur House, I yank my head out of the rusty tub. The alien’s calm now that it knows what’s going on. It sheathes the black barbs and starts curling itself into a little ball, wrapping all its tendrils around its body. I spit out a big mouthful of water and whatever bodily fluids it’s been excreting into the bath.
Ty is starting to wiggle her feet, but I don’t want to use the stunner again. It always makes me feel bad. Instead I just retrieve my phone from her pocket and slide hers to the opposite side of the bathroom. It skitters over the tiles into a dust-caked corner. Her glare intensifies.
“I did it screen up,” I say, taking the key off her wrist. “No scratches.”
The thing in the tub is ready to be carried, a slick little bundle of bone and mucus. I put it under my jacket—it clings—and do up the zipper. My hands are still shaking a little as I open the bathroom door. My Bluetooth came disconnected so all I can hear is soft shuffling feet and a few murmured mid-dance conversations.
I lock the door behind me and make my way back across the dance floor. It’s a slow song and most of the couples are barely moving, just tiny undulations of their hips synchronized to the music I can’t hear. I thumb the map on my phone. My ride is four minutes away.
I’m thinking I pulled it off when I hear the sound of a rapid-fire French argument. Through the glass door I see the Moroccan is on his feet, hackles up, snarling at someone short and squat and dressed all in black. For a moment I think there’s something wrong with their face, then I realize it’s a tribal mask, scab red with simple black holes for mouth and eyes.
Maybe they’re some drunk uni student making mischief in a Halloween leftover. Maybe they’re about to take it off and, quelle surprise, it’s one of the Moroccan’s friends underneath, and everyone will have a laugh about it.
I’m still hoping that as a gloved hand flashes forward, seizes the Moroccan’s flicker knife off the table, and drives it into his crotch with a shearing sound. Bright red blood spatters the glass door and suddenly the mask is staring right at me. I catch a glimpse of a gun coming out before I hurtle back inside.
I plow down the middle of the floor and knock someone over; a retributory shove sends me into the bar. My bad knee jars against a metal stool but I barely feel it. Too terrified, too much adrenaline flash-flooding my brain. The alien in my jacket squirms.
“Gun!” I shout. “Get down, y’a un gars avec un fucking gun!”
A woman yanks her old school headphones off to give me a questioning look. I see the tribal mask bobbing towards me through the dark, slipping between couples, and I split down the narrow hallway, running with a hobble. I’m nearly to the red glow of the exit sign when the bathroom door crunches off its hinges and into the wall in front of me.
I pull up short, catch a flash of Dion’s confused face before I duck under his arm and slam my way through the back door. There’s a rush of cold night air and the stink of garbage and gasoline. The alley is narrow, grimy red brick lined with metal dumpsters, and for a second I’m not sure which way to run.
A gunshot goes off behind me; I pick left. The alien is starting to lose its grip, sliding downward under my jacket, but I get a fractured glance at my phone and my ride’s only a block away. I cradle one arm around the fleshy bundle. My lungs are full of fishhooks. I’m not in running shape. I’m barely clean.
Through the keening echo in my ears I hear feet slapping the pavement behind me, gaining on me. I don’t want to look. Don’t want to see the mask. Then I’m tackled to the ground and I don’t have a choice. My chin bounces off the tarmac, jarring my skull, spilling purple-black blots across my eyes. I roll, grab for the stunner in my pocket.
The tribal mask is centimeters from my face; I can see it’s cheap plastic from some streetside printer. One hand locks my wrist and the other peels the stunner away before my finger can find the trigger. The gecko grip takes a layer of skin with it.
“Il est où le prophète?” Their voice is soft but insistent. “Where? Where?”
They toss the weapon over their shoulder and all I can think about is the blood spattering the glass door and how I’m going to be nothing but electricity in someone’s brain soon, and how maybe that’s for the best. They spot the rippling motion under my jacket—the alien isn’t calm anymore—and reach for my zipper. I hear their breathing quicken.
Ty jams the stunner into the back of their neck. The charge ragdolls them; I smell singed hair as they flop to one side, bucking and twitching. She thrusts it into their chest next, grinding it against their heaving ribs. I scramble backward. She’s howling as she hits the trigger again and again, her hair flying wild around her face.
“Osti de tabarnak de crisse de marde,” she sobs, punctuating each curse with the stunner.
They spasm, flipping onto their side, and for an instant I see the shaved back of their head. I see the scar tissue. The hole.
“What the fuck is going on?” Ty demands, and I get that she’s asking me, not them. “Who are you?” She levels my stunner at me. “Bouge pas. Bouge pas. I called the cops.”
To prove her words, the sound of squealing tires comes from the opposite end of the alley. But there’s no siren, and as the big black car noses into the alleyway I see the driver is wearing a mask. She sees it too and I hear her breath catch. My phone buzzes in my pocket.
“That’s not the fucking feds,” I say. “Allons-y.”
I run and she comes with me, down the alley, leaving the person in the tribal mask to twitch and shake. The car squeals to a halt to not run them over. I hear doors slamming open; I can picture guns being drawn. I dredge one last burst out of my aching muscles. We shoot out of the alley onto the street, where an autotrailer is idling and blocking traffic.
The door slides open and I throw myself inside. Ty follows a little more gracefully and we’re moving before the door can close. I hear sirens now. Two blue police cars whiz past us on their way to Fleur House. The autotrailer hangs a left and starts heading for the Pont-Tunnel. I keep my face pressed to the cold metal floor until my breathing is back to normal. The alien in my jacket gives a tentative squirm.
“Fuck,” I hear Ty murmur. “There’s more of them.”
I drag my head up. She’s looking at the tank, of course, the big polyplastic tank that takes up most of the trailer. Three ugly beautiful creatures are swirling around inside, tendrils billowing, bony heads nuzzling against each other. I stagger to my feet, balancing against the lurch of the vehicle, and unzip my jacket.
The alien from the bathtub mewls, stretching a tendril into the air towards its kin. I dump it into the tank. There’s a soft splash and then the aliens are all bundled together in one pulsing mass that always gives me a bit of a lump in the throat. A pictogram flashes through my skull, the eye-green rhombus fitting perfectly into its golden-brown place.
“Yeah,” I say. “Yes. There’s more of them. And more out there.”
Ty stares at the tank. Her eyes are glassy with shock. “They shot Dion in the head,” she says. “He was trying to get out of their way, and they shot him in the head.”
My stomach churns. “Sorry,” I say, even though sorry means nothing.
“Who were those people?” she asks in a voice like brittle wood.
I look at the tank, too, and shake my head. “Aucune idée,” I say, remembering the flicker knife, the tribal mask, the trepanation scar in the back of their skull. “That’s never happened before.”
“It was the meteor shower, then.” Ty is slumped against the bouncing wall of the trailer. “Dion was right. Aliens. Calisse, mais ça c’est fou. Crazy. Crazy. This is all fucking crazy.” She clutches her head in both hands and shuts her eyes. “And you, you’re what? You’re collecting them?”
“We’ve got a deal, I guess,” I say, checking our route on my phone. “Kind of a deal. Yeah. I have to talk to them, then we’ll drop you somewhere.”
I get up again and go to the tank. The biggest of them, the one I met a month ago in the ice-cold harbor by the Grande Roue, swims over to meet me. One of its tendrils loops over the top of the tank. I grab it, and I realize Ty is looking at my trepanation again.
“They did that?” she asks faintly. “That hole?”
“Better than a ruptured septum,” I say. “They showed me how to do it. Wasn’t so bad.”
Her gaze flicks to my arms, to the ladder of track marks and purpled scars no longer hidden by my jacket. “You’re a junkie,” she says. “I seen arms like that before.” She watches as I bring the tendril to the nape of my neck. “Is it a high for you?” Her laugh is bitter. “Is that what you get out of this?”
“It’s complicated,” I say, as the tendril slides inside my brain and turns the only key that matters. I need to find out where we’re going next. I need to ask about the people in the masks. But those things can wait a little while. I take a deep breath. “Hey, Em.”
“Hey, Benny,” Emilie says, stepping around Ty, slouching down beside me. “Got another alien, huh?” She shakes her head and gives me her semi-sad smile. “T’es fou, toi.”
“Yeah,” I say, blinking back tears. “I know.”
We hold hands as the autotrailer enters the Pont-Tunnel.
Rich Larson (Ymir, Tomorrow Factory) was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Spain and Czech Republic, and is currently based in Grande Prairie, Canada. His fiction has been translated into over a dozen languages, among them Polish, French, Romanian and Japanese, and his Clarkesworld story “Ice” was adapted into an Emmy-winning episode of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS.